The Food Lab for Kids

Bonnie Lei ’15, Currier FLP rep, describes her first semester piloting The Food Lab for Kids at Harvard.

“I don’t like cheese” Dennis declared to me at the Cambridge Area IV Youth Center in his middle school-I’ve decided it’s settled -matter-of-fact way.  I ask some more questions, and realize that this opinion is based on a diet of Kraft Singles and packaged string cheese.  But The Food Lab for Kids in session, and in addition to cooking up fun and delicious science lessons, we aim to showcase real, healthy food in all its glory.  Acclaimed cheesemaker Lourdes Smith of Fiore di Nonno, glanced over my shoulder and gave Dennis a knowing smile “We’ll see about that little buddy.  Wait until you taste real cheese you make yourself!”  Ten minutes later, after our students learned a quick lesson on curds and whey, our dozen students have their sleeves rolled up, marveling at their ability to stretch their own curds into string cheese in splashing tubs of hot water.

The Food Lab for Kids all began with an idea.  I have long had a passion for the sciences, which was sparked by research opportunities at a young age that showed me how exciting science could be when I could investigate my own questions and hypotheses.  Realizing how lucky I was, I became dedicated to ensuring that young students are able to have an engaging early exposure to the sciences, whether it is locally in my community or as far away as Nepal and Uganda.  In thinking of ways that science can be made accessible and even fun, I often think of my own kitchen experiments.  In crafting a new recipe, I regularly go through several tests, making educated tweaks to ingredients or cooking method to try to make the creamiest milkshake or flakiest scallion pancake.  This method of thinking, problem solving, tinkering is the basis of all science research and engineering marvels.

Here at Harvard, I saw a great model in the Science and Cooking course, which gave legions of non-science undergraduate students an introduction to the physical sciences every year.  It simultaneously has become such an enjoyable experience the class has all but reached a cult following.  What if we could utilize the fun and delicious aspects of cooking to engage young students in the sciences, and involve them in healthy, nutritious lifestyles?  It all came together when I had a brainstorm session with my friend and co-founder Marina Chen, a fellow cooking extraordinaire and believer in the possibilities of expanding the Science and Cooking concept.

Over the course of a few hours, we had the draft for The Food Lab for Kids made up, and began talking to everyone we could about making this idea a reality.  We were lucky to have such strong support from the very start, from Science and Cooking professor Michael Brenner, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) Director of Education Kathryn Hollar, to Science and Cooking course staff Christina Andujar, Pia Sorenson, and Naveen Sinha.  And with financial support from a SEAS Nectar grant, we took off.  We contacted Area IV Youth Center Director Nicole Rodriguez, who enthusiastically agreed to be our host for our first pilot run of our Science of Pizza curriculum.  Our team of nine Harvard undergraduate students, many who are alumni of the Science and Cooking course, serve as our teachers for weekly hands-on, lab-based classes on that incorporate science concepts and good nutrition habits.  Week by week, we covered everything from the fermentation in pizza dough to the Maillard reaction on caramelized vegetable toppings to thickeners in marinara sauce.  We saw the growth of our ten students, as they grasped onto concepts learned from week to week.  Their center staff and parents were also bowled over by what they saw in terms of kitchen skills obtained, everything from safe knife skills to proper stove work.

The culmination of their program experience was in the research project they conducted in the last weeks.  We saw this as the ultimate test: will the students be sufficiently motivated and empowered to come up with their own research questions and design proper experiments to test their hypotheses?  The answer was an overwhelming yes!  Students formed groups and decided their own research projects.  They ended up exploring how to make fluffier pancakes (the magic is in beating the egg whites!), chewier cookies (with the use of different sugars), and crunchier French fries (by altering the cooking method).  They had the opportunity to present to their peers, at an Area IV youth center hosted science fair, and then again at the SEAS Design Fair.  The students will have another opportunity to showcase their work to the greater Cambridge/Boston community, as well as world class chefs and scientists, at a rescheduled Cambridge Science Festival event at SEAS this coming fall.

After the success of our first pilot run, we are excited to be working on expanding the offerings of The Food Lab for Kids locally and even eventually nationwide.  Our goal is to demonstrate how science curriculum can be effective in through this engaging medium, and lead to positive life skills in health and nutrition as well, and to make this something that can be accessible to all kids.  We had designed the lessons with the goal of utilizing easy to access materials such as basic food ingredients and kitchen equipment, so that even low-resource communities can have access to rigorous, lab-based science curriculum.  We will keep working until we can make that dream a reality.

Back at the Area IV Youth Center, I felt a light tapping on my arm, and saw that it was Dennis.  I couldn’t help but smile at his hands still wet with warm cheese water and a jubilant energy that could barely keep him still.  “Will you food people be back next week?” he asked.  I couldn’t help but smile with him.  “Of course!” I told him, before he bounded out of the room, running and screaming into the corridor “I have string cheese, and it tastes SO much better than that fake stuff you buy!!”.  The Food Lab for Kids is just getting started, I thought to myself.  And a seal of approval from a hard-to-please middle school boy is more than enough encouragement to keep us going.

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